The ghost of Alfred Hitchock's 1940 film thriller hangs menacingly over any television adaptation of "Rebecca," the romantic suspense classic by Daphne du Maurier.
But the four-part series beginning tonight on public television is good enough to exorcise even the spirits of Hitchcock and such bright stars as Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson.
This version of "Rebecca" is handsome, haunting and beautifully paced to capture the subtle psychological suspense that builds slowly and inexorably in Du Maurier's 1938 novel.
Hitchock's 2 1/2-hour film played heavily on suspense and menacing overtones. The television production is purer Du Maurier. Within its framework of four one-hour weekly episodes, it can explore the characters and flesh them out. The suspense builds more slowly, but just as relentlessly.
Tonight's opening episode (9 p.m. on Channels 26 and 22) finds a shy, awkward young woman serving as companion to a fluttery, rich American widow, Mrs. Van Hopper (shrewdly portrayed by Elspeth March). The pair is traveling in Europe, and in Monte Carlo, they meet the haughty, handsome Maxim de Winter, whose first marriage ended in the tragic drowning of his wife.
"We have a bond in common, you and I. We're both alone," the moody Maxim tells the fresh-faced, modest young woman (who remains unnamed here, as in Du Maurier's novel) during a strange courtship.
Once he has won her love, Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his family home and one of Cornwall's most famous historic estates, where Mrs. Danvers, the icy, sinister housekeeper, keeps alive the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter.
Jeremy Brett, cast in the Olivier role, plays Maxim closer to the novel: He has a darker side; he can be contemptuous and fall into cold rages. Olivier's interpretation was more brooding, with a touch of Heathcliffe. Of course, in 1940, the Hollywood code did not permit a hero to be a murderer.
Joanna David is a brilliant choice for the role of the young woman who is to become the second mistress of Manderley and to find it haunted by the memory of Rebecca, the stunningly beautiful first wife.
If David is a bit older than the 19-year-old heroine, there is a youthful vulnerability to her innocence. Fontaine played the role with an almost pathological shyness. David gives a warmth and spirit to the inexperienced girl.
Mrs. Danvers becomes a malevolent character with softened edges in the hands of Anna Massey, the daughter of actor Raymond Massey. In the film version, Judith Anderson was far more menacing, almost an avenging fury from Greek drama.
The script, written by Hugh Whitemore, adheres scupulously to Du Maurier's plot line, dialogue and characterization without the liberties taken by the Hitchcock film.
In all, it is a beautifully orchestrated production. Many scenes were filmed on location in the wild, rugged beauty of Cornwall, where Dame Daphne still lives.
"Rebecca" continues through April 1 as part of PBS' "Mystery!" series, which has just concluded four splendidly entertaining chapters of "Rumpole of the Bailey," a series featuring an eccentric English barrister.